“Remodelling an architectural legend”, The Australian, 26-27 Mar, 1994.

The Wright Way

He’s either the greatest architectural genius or the biggest charlatan of this century. His reputation for designing inspirational buildings with leaky roofs and structural inadequacies continues to this day. He was both charming and arrogant, a hustler and a visionary. But whatever way you slice it, Frank Lloyd Wright remains one of the most brilliant and creative architects the world has ever known.

So think the multitudes presently crushing their way into New York’s Museum of Modern Art to catch a glimpse of the first major retrospective of Wright’s work since his death 35 years ago. Born in 1867, Wright devoted most of his 91 years towards an architecture of monumental unity and aesthetic grandeur.

His famous Prairie houses captured the imagination of a public distrustful of twentieth century ways but fascinated just the same. Strong horizontal lines, low overhanging eaves, patterned stone work and central fireplaces immediately link the houses to the landscape, and the occupants to the dwelling. Culminating in the Robie house in Chicago (1910) and the breathtaking Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania (1937), Wright’s domestic buildings became everybody’s ideal of modern architecture; even if they weren’t.

At the MoMA exhibition it all becomes clear: if Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t already exist, America would have to invent him. Which is exactly what they’re doing anyway. The 350 original drawings, 30 models, and full-scale reconstructions of building parts on display are just the tip of a colossal Wright industry that is feverishly remodelling a romantic transcendental architect for public consumption. The furniture, decorative objects, lecture series, architectural tours, memorabilia, and publications that have flooded Manhattan this past month now count as evidence that Wright did indeed give spirit to an alienating International-Style world.

Caught somewhere between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Wright was a Romantic no doubt. Some might even say if Ralph Waldo Emerson were an architect, he would have been Frank Lloyd Wright. Certainly the essays in the show’s catalogue go some way arguing this. Others — like rival architect Philip Johnson, who saw to it that Wright was only a minor player in MoMA’s seminal modernism show way back in 1932 — simply say Wright is America’s greatest nineteenth century architect. No wonder the Arizona-based Wright Foundation thought twice before cooperating with the New York culture headquarters, whose architecture and design department is still very much under the mischievous influence of 87 year-old Johnson.

Mounting the retrospective at MoMA is full of strange contradictions. Wright never completely forgave Johnson his hard-line modernism (though Johnson now embraces Wright and the retrospective). On top of all this Wright just plain HATED Manhattan. To him it was a “fibrous tumour, a place fit for banking and prostitution and not much else.” Wright devoted his life to the idea of horizontal space, and lots of it. Vertical cities were for the birds.

Hence his image of modern rural utopia: Broadacre City. Although this low, flat city was never actually built, it’s a striking prototype of international suburbia. Modelled in 1934 as part of Wright’s Usonia project (an acronym for the United States of North America), Broadacre remains an unbuilt tour-de-force of town planning. The enormous painted wood and cardboard model today looks like an ariel view of any number of existing burbs, complete with sports stadium, gridded roads and geometrically planted houses and trees (all suitably distanced). The ideal rural retreat soon produced the very problems it was designed to avoid.

When Wright finally did build in Manhattan, it was an almost unbuildable project that was somehow completed against all odds. The correspondence surrounding his fight to complete the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from 1943-59 reveals much about the drive of the architect. Packaged up in a new publication timed to coincide with the Guggenheim’s own contribution to the Wright mania, the letters are an illuminating account of this remarkable building’s progress. Its vast spiral structure engulfs the visitor in an unforgettable oasis of eccentricity that museum curators still claim is impossible to hang work in.

If nothing else, Wright’s buildings were mortal. That’s why they leak and sag along with the rest of the world. His designs, on the other hand, leave the impression of immortality. Preserved in photographs, drawings and renovated models, the MoMA show idealises his work better than many existing buildings.

The exhibition is also a vivid reminder that many of his most spectacular projects are either unbuilt or demolished. The Chicago Midway Gardens (built 1913 demolished 1929) synthesised Secessionist sculpture, German beer gardens, Egyptian ornament, and Mayan spatial ordering. The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (built in 1912, survived an earthquake in 1923, demolished in 1968) reveals Wright’s debt to Japanese design. Sketches for the Chicago National Life Insurance Company building of 1925 are a monumental rebuke to the historicist designs of the period. And the numerous plans for unmade Civic Centres in Wisconsin, Hollywood, Washington or Pittsburgh during the 1940s serve as a vivid portrait of the architect in his later years.

No leaks or sagging supports in these unrealised projects. Besides, none of that bothered Wright much anyway. Once, when he received an angry phone call from the midst of a client’s dinner party which had been interrupted by a steady drip on the owner’s head, Wright simply suggested that the irate caller solve the problem by moving his chair! That was the Wright way. It still is.